dr. Gebhardt and Dr. Anderson works with all teams involved in the care of patients with bone cancer to ensure as much continuity as possible. (Photos: Karen Elsner, Boston Children’s/Design: Sebastian Stankiewicz, Boston Children’s)
When Dr. While Mark Gebhardt was surgical at Boston Children’s Hospital in the early 1980s, doctors were just beginning to use chemotherapy to treat bone cancers such as osteosarcoma and Ewing’s sarcoma. Boston Children’s and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute were among the first places to offer this treatment. They were also among the first to offer limb-rescue surgery as an alternative to amputation.
Since then, Dr. Gebhardt helped educate a new generation of orthopedic oncology surgeons, including Dr. Megan Anderson, who now oversees orthopedic oncology at Boston Children’s.
Here, the two surgeons share why they’ve devoted their careers to treating children and young adults with bone and soft tissue tumors, and how families can benefit from this team approach.
Why did you study orthopedic oncology?
dr. Gebhardt: Orthopedic oncology suits my temperament because it is a “team sport”. Working with pediatric oncologists, radiation oncologists, radiologists and pathologists, as well as the patient and their family, is part of what makes this work worthwhile.
dr. Anderson: I liked that none of the procedures are the same, that we care for different age groups and operate on all parts of the body. I also really liked the scientific and medical side of it. We look for answers to diagnose a patient and create a care plan.
How would you describe your philosophy of care?
dr. Anderson: Patient-centered care is our top priority. We work with all teams involved in the care of our patients to ensure as much continuity as possible.
How do you teach medical students to help patients cope with a cancer diagnosis?
dr. Gebhardt: For example, I hope. One of the hardest things for a patient and family to hear is that a tumor is malignant. They don’t have cancer until you tell them they have cancer. It’s important to sit down with them and look them in the eye and explain the diagnosis while giving them hope in some way. You cannot promise that the treatment will work, but you can promise that they have come to the right place and that you will never let them down. It is a difficult skill to teach. Some people get it easy, like Megan did, and others never.
Why is this the right place for bone cancer patients?
dr. Gebhardt: We have been treating these diseases for a long time and have a rich history of caring for patients with challenging conditions. We have the combined expertise of Boston Children’s and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. The teams here are made up of experienced people who are always available and never say no.
How would you describe your working relationship?
dr. Anderson: Mark is the best person in the world when a patient has a really difficult diagnosis and I need someone to help me think about treatment options. He also teaches me how to be an effective leader while gaining more responsibility in the department.
dr. Gebhardt: We have a strong friendship and respect for each other. This work is often very rewarding, but there are many struggles along the way. We work well together in difficult cases, while putting the interests of our patients first. Our personalities are just kind of jive.
When you look ahead to the future, what excites you most?
dr. Anderson: The pandemic gave us an opportunity to step back and identify gaps in care for children with rare diseases. Children who live near (or can travel to) a center like Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center have access to a different level of care than those who cannot or cannot. We should not accept variations in care if it is simply a matter of logistics to get patients to a center that specializes in their disease. In addition to caring for patients at Boston Children’s, I serve on a number of national councils and look forward to addressing these types of issues at that level.
dr. Gebhardt: One of the joys of being a teacher is watching your students grow and excel in ways you could never have imagined. That’s definitely what happened to Megan. And while Dr. Carrie Heincelman, who joined our team in 2019, is at an earlier stage in her career, she is doing the same. I look forward to seeing both continue to improve care for patients with bone and soft tissue tumors.
Learn more about the Bone and Soft Tissue Tumors Program and the Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center.